Passion for Nothing

Kierkegaard's Apophatic Theology

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Peter Kline
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , September
     2017.
     224 pages.
     $79.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781506432656.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

There are, dear reader, expectations associated with reviewing an academic work, and nothing would please me more than satisfying yours. But this occasion, like every other, constrains us to settle on something less than nothing. “Reviewing” brings to mind a person of high rank moving along a line of soldiers, making sure all is in order, each soldier ready for battle. But I have no rank and no desire to send a single line into battle. Lines are more interesting when we take them (as Paul Klee suggested) for a walk—in reading, in writing, in painting--all relevant to the book that brings us together here. Between you and me, there is never time to satisfy every expectation; but when we take a line for a walk, we can expect a dance. I beg your indulgence as I take a moment to respond to the invitation to dance Peter Kline extends in Passion for Nothing by taking a few lines for a walk.

Kline says he has “no interest in mastering Kierkegaard.” He wants to play with him, to mind the gaps. That would be music to the ears of a writer who called himself a kind of poet. Nothing plays a more important role than beginning in Kierkegaard, so we have reason to attend to Kline’s preface, which evokes the work of Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly and entangles the writing of the book with Kline’s teaching himself to paint, moving from desk to gallery to easel, writing, wandering, painting among “apophatic energies.” What is put in play here is minding the gaps, a kind of dance, and this beginning ends with a kind of prayer: “Let all that follows be un-said into the gap—”

Because nothing is more important than beginning, we must not overlook the lines before the preface—Meister Eckhart telling us our knowledge “must change into unknowing,” Jean-Luc Nancy telling us “of a nihil in which all nihilism loses its ‘ism,’” and Søren Kierkegard telling us “nothing, nothing, nothing. Wonderful!” That sequence contains as much about “God” as all that follows.

“The organizing claim of this book,” Kline writes, “is that Kierkegaard’s authorship is premised upon an apophatically conceived and enacted idea of God or the absolute” (1). Having an organizing claim while abandoning intention is dancing on a wire. That the organizing claim is about authorship makes writing critical to unsaying what is said. That “God” and “the absolute” are joined by “or” points to Hegel. That the idea is apophatically conceived and enacted (or is it apophatically conceived and apophatically enacted?) directs our attention to what Kline and Eckhart and Kierkegaard and Nancy are not saying. That is what we need when we come to “read” the images at the end of the book: learning to paint, as Kline sees it, is a reduplication of writing a book that involves minding the gaps while learning to un-say.

Making “playing with” the alternative to “mastering” means Kline does not abandon mastery. “Mastering” suggests going beyond. “Playing with” implies being present. More than once, Kline notes his intention to let go of intention; and he associates this letting go with play. As he plays with the authorship, it becomes clear that this move is related to a conception of God that has much in common with Eckhart. To let go of intention is to let go of teleology. But if letting go of teleology means the telos is here, in the middle, where we are, then the “intention” of play is to be fully present—always open, never finished. Kline’s comments on longing in “Attunement,” reduplicated throughout the book, make this clear. After a description of the eucharist as a subjective reduplication of God “in and as longing,” he describes the end of Kierkegaard’s authorship as “eternally open in the face of a world that, bent on closure, blasphemes the Spirit” (xvii). The end is present from the beginning, and Kline dances about it in a way that reduplicates Kierkegaard’s understanding of God as a poet, of creatures as “the poetry of the divine life, thrown into existence with abandon” (98), which leads to “the instant of hospitality” (103).

Kline writes that “having read Kierkegaard backward into conversation with medieval mystics (Porete and Eckhart), I also want to show that he can be read forward into conversation with thinkers of deconstruction” (120). One need not know Kierkegaard backward and forward to recognize that his work is at home between Porete and Derrida; but it is enlightening to put him into play there, and to do it by reading backward is consistent with the intention to un-say in writing.

Moving from faith through hope toward the “work” of love, Kline insists that Kierkegaard is not simply “Protestant” in his attention to faith. I find it fascinating that he does not make his case by noting that Kierkegaard is more Lutheran than Luther, perching, as he does, on the love at work in God. It is in commentary on James (which Luther called “an epistle of straw”) that Kline locates the claim that “the love at work in the name of Jesus is this—that there is only ever the absolute value of this instant in which I am to love ‘that one.’” (133). Temporality is infinite beginning, always the site of creation, keeping time by keeping it open. For Kline, this points to the patience (Dorothee Soelle called it “revolutionary”) “that belongs to play” (136).

The least satisfying part of the book is “In-Conclusion,” the dialogue at the end that explicitly says “I am going to reduplicate it.” If the voice asking “if you are not going to conclude the book, what are you going to do?” were identified as an editor and the voice that answers had danced around reduplication instead of naming it conclusively, this might have worked. But when there is nothing to say, it is best to say nothing. Since “In-Conclusion” does not say nothing, what it calls a “reduplication”—eight paintings, each of which bears the name of one of the sections of the book—looks like an afterthought.

Perhaps I missed something, but it seems to me that it is nothing that is obscured by the paintings. Which leaves me, dear reader, where I leave you— at a loss, not better than nothing, but not the worst place to be if our end is to begin again.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Schroeder is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
March 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Kline is the Academic Dean and Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St. Francis Theological College of Charles Sturt University in Australia. He is also an artist.

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